The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is now under construction, which could open up new discoveries in astronomy, and allow scientists to image Earth-like planets in star systems several light years from our own stellar family.
The Extremely Large Telescope will feature a main mirror 128 feet in diameter. The massive telescope, managed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), will be housed in Chile. When the observatory is completed, it will dwarf other visible and near-infrared telescopes around the globe.
Approval to begin construction of the observatory was passed by the the Council, the governing body for the ESO.
"The decision taken by Council means that the telescope can now be built, and that major industrial construction work for the E-ELT is now funded and can proceed according to plan. There is already a lot of progress in Chile on the summit of Armazones and the next few years will be very exciting," Tim de Zeeuw, director general of the ESO, said.
Funding for the main structure and the dome of the observatory, the largest in the history of the observatory, will be awarded in late 2015.
Construction of the observatory is scheduled to be completed in 10 years.
The ESO operates a network of telescopes in the Atacama Desert in Chile, around 370 miles north of the city of Santiago. The largest telescope currently operating at the ESO is designed with four mirrors, each 26 feet across. Due to the high altitude of the desert and dark skies in the area, the region is a prime spot for astronomers.
Using the E-ELT, astronomers will be able to record planetary formation around developing stars. Planets around other suns will be studied using the massive telescope, with tools capable of detecting water and organic chemicals on alien worlds. The E-ELT could be the first instrument capable of detecting telltale signs of life, even on worlds were evolution has not proceeded past simple microbes.
Infrastructure is being routed to the site of the observatory, in conjunction with public authorities.
"The Chilean government has assisted in enabling the construction of a grid connection to the Paranal-Armazones area. Work started in mid-2014 and will be completed in 2018," ESO officials wrote.
The Hale Telescope, a 200-inch instrument at Palomar Observatory near Los Angeles, held the world record for the world's largest astronomical observational tool from its opening in 1948 until 1975. That year, the BTA-6 telescope in the Soviet Union saw its first light. Today, 18 telescopes larger than the once-giant device at Palomar are in service around the world, studying deep space.